A kinder, gentler Republican president is dead

Just four years later, as a member of Congress from Houston, he bravely supported the 1968 Fair Housing Act over the opposition of many of his constituents. And as president, he appointed Clarence Thomas to replace Thurgood Marshall as the sole black justice on the Supreme Court, cynically claiming that he was the best man for the job.

Yet he managed the end of the Cold War with consummate skill, and built a peerless coalition to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. He signed the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act and pressed for the Americans With Disabilities Act the next year. And he broke his famous “no new taxes” pledge to compromise on the budget deal that let Bill Clinton preside over an economic boom.

And yet.

He was human in the ways that count. He may have been born, as Governor Ann Richards of Texas so famously taunted, “with a silver foot in his mouth,” but he had superb manners, a fine sense of humor, and a touch of the poet. When I wrote a joint profile of him and his son for Vanity Fair in 2006, he declined to participate, but nevertheless sent a hand-signed note to me explaining his reasons—and a handwritten note to our children gently boasting about his speed in a cigarette boat off the coast of Maine.